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Archives for October 2010

Keith Richards: A survivor's tale

Matt Frei | 15:23 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010


The most life-affirming story I read today was a piece on the BBC website about the extraordinary stamina of Rolling Stone Keith Richards. And I am not talking about his ability to give concerts at the age of 66.

Doctors describe the ageing rocker's survival as a medical miracle. Mr Richards has probably taken every drug the chemical industry and the jungles of Colombia have to offer and has lived to tell the tale in his autobiography, appropriately called Life.

What saved him, according to the medics, is the constitution of an ox - which you wouldn't have guessed from his spectral gothic appearance - and survival instincts that still function in extremis. For instance, Mr Richards sensibly gave up cocaine after he fell off a palm tree in hot and high pursuit of a coconut. He cracked open his skull and vowed to quit at least one of his drugs.

That makes him a role model. Doesn't it?

How private jet orders reflect the new world order

Matt Frei | 15:14 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010


jet.jpgForeclosures grind on, unemployment stalks the middle classes and anger simmers unabated, but someone clearly isn't having a rough time.

You will all be overjoyed to hear that the sale of executive jets is booming. General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman both report a sharp increase of orders back to pre-recession, full indulgence levels.

Remember those shame faced bank and car tycoons, who had to suffer the unbelievable indignity of taking ordinary planes - and, yes, even trains down to Washington - to beg for bailout money from the taxpayer.

Well, that doesn't seem to have changed. The new orders reflect the new world order. They are coming from Latin America and Asia - and we're not talking about puny Cessnas.

New World money likes large jets, costing at least $50m (£31m) a pop with interiors that can go up to $8m. It reminds me of the line I heard on the ski slopes of Deer Valley in the US state of Utah a few years ago, when an angry father from New York state berated his son with the unforgettable words, "If you don't go to ski school, Harrison, we are flying back commercial!"

The poor kid was traumatized.

Can social chemistry aid Obama after mid-terms?

Matt Frei | 14:56 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Obama_Boehner.jpgIf Washington is to produce more than just acrimony and trench warfare in the two years after the mid-term elections, assuming the GOP does as well in the House of Representatives as the polls predict, then much will depend on the relationship between Representative John Boehner and President Obama.

Barring divine intervention Mr Boehner is set to become the next Speaker of the House. Can he get along with President Obama? Can the two sit down and make sausages? I remember a White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, where President Obama's best and most vicious jokes were reserved for the man he will now have to deal with.

Like most Mr Boehner jokes, they focused heavily on Agent Orange's fake tan. It is all good natured stuff, of course. But I wonder how thick Mr Boehner's oddly hued skin really is. By his own admission, he is prone to tears. The Republican from Ohio may be sensitive, but he has also shown steel in his consistent opposition to President Obama, which began just hours after the inauguration.

Interestingly, Mr Boehner voted for the $700bn (£442bn) bailout package, which the Bush administration cobbled together in a desperate hurry to rescue the teetering banks and America's financial system. He tried hard to get fellow Republicans on board. In the end, only 65 voted with him in support of a Republican administration. The Dow plummeted 800 points that day. But just a few months later, Mr Boehner was instrumental in organising the opposition against Mr Obama's stimulus package - also worth roughly $800bn. That time he had more success - not a single member of the GOP voted with the administration. Since then, Mr Boehner has been the bane of the Democrats in Congress. He has done so out of conviction but also bitter personal experience.

In the 1990s, Mr Boehner apparently went out of his way to reach across the aisle. He befriended the late Senator Edward Kennedy - one of the most liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he has told reporters that once elected Speaker of the House, he can rediscover his inner bi-partisan. But Congress is more bitterly divided now than ever.

Partisanship may not create historic legislation, but it helps to buff up the electoral base. And that base has got the bit between its teeth. The new Congress will be full of Tea Party missionaries who want radical change, just as liberal Democrats will be itching for a fight once they have licked their wounds. Congress will put pressure on President Obama to show more steel, or they will desert him in 2012.

Surely it promises to be a punch up. The president's veto pen will be working overtime. I only see one real glimmer of hope, and it is a genuine glimmer. Mr Obama and Mr Boehner share something that is extremely rare and precious these days - they both love to smoke cigarettes.

Now that's some social chemistry they can build on.

Mid-term elections: the ultimate recession-proof industry

Matt Frei | 16:56 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010


The American economy staggers on into an uncertain future. Bond traders are so worried about inflation that they are prepared to pay the Treasury in order to lend it money. The mortgage mess grinds on and banks are still reluctant to do what the taxpayer bailed them out for - lending, not stuffing mattresses.

And yet the recession has ignored the campaign for the mid-terms, where there is an unprecedented amount of cash being flung around.

All up, this campaign is set to break the $2bn (£1.26bn) mark, costing more than the 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns combined. That is roughly $4m for every congressional seat up for grabs. Call it a stimulus package for hot air and vitriol, fueled by a loathing of stimulus packages.

Between them Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor of California, Rick Scott, the Republican running for governor in Florida, and Linda McMahon, the Republican running for the US Senate in Connecticut, have spent $243m dollars and counting. Much of it has been their own money, and they aren't even well ahead in the polls.

One reason for this monsoon rain of campaign cash is the large and growing number of contested seats - over 100 by now, almost all of them in Democratic hands. Another is the campaigning zeal, especially on the Republicans' side. They see this election as a historic chance to halt what they regard as a center-left detour of America's path to conservatism.

But is all this money actually well spent? Are the candidates getting enough bang for their buck? Or is lavish spending, above all, a reassuring elixir for a nervous political class in the era of insurrection? $2bn split up into 2,000 see-through bags, perhaps?

Just think what they could do with that kind of money in Kabul.

Families stalked by the death of a dream

Matt Frei | 21:32 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010


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Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller's classic about the burden and tragedy of the American Dream, comes back periodically to haunt audiences in this country.

Earlier this month we followed a production in Vermont that played to packed houses. It is the obvious play for a time of recession.

Death of a Salesman was written in 1948, when America was mired in a recession it feared would degenerate into a full-blown depression. Memories of the 1930s were still raw. Arthur Miller's own father lost his business after the crash and the playwright was intent on showing up the American Dream as a kind of trance that placed a crushing burden on the dreamer.

The families we interviewed in Vermont were never close to the kind of despair that drove Willy Loman to kill himself. But they were teetering between resignation and pride.

For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans believe the next generation will be worse off, and the next generation does little if anything to dispel these fears. (Watch our film on BBC World News America tonight at 1900 Eastern time).

Jim and Beau Diehl, a father-and-son duo of carpenters, clearly had to downsize their benchmarks of success. Their small business was being starved of credit by the banks. Jim Diehl still believed in the American Dream. His son essentially thought it was a sham.

The Juergen family were three generations sitting around a kitchen island. Good company lubricated by red wine. And yet Chelsea had to leave her expensive private college because they could no longer pay the bills and couldn't imagine paying back the exorbitant loans.

Her mother Kristin, a manager in the health industry, was working harder than ever for less money than ever. She seemed utterly exhausted. The recession is forcing her to run another lap when all she really wants to do is put her feet up.

Kristin's father, George, 78, was the most relaxed. With a chiselled chin and a striking resemblance to General Patton, he had a wicked sense of humour, a benign relief that he had experienced the best post war years and a great story from his past.

I asked if he had fought in the War.

"Yes," he said. "I was in the battle of Las Vegas."

I told him I hadn't heard of it.

"You wouldn't," he replied. "It's what we called our weekly outings to Sin City."

George Juergen was based in the Nevada desert in the early 1950s, when America was busy enhancing its nuclear capability. His job was to herd 10,000 pigs to the test sites, place them in various strategic locations and then watch what happened to them during and after the blast.

It was the biggest barbeque on the planet.

Several of his colleagues developed cancer. Mr Juergen survived with his body intact and his sense of humour enhanced. And at his ripe old age, he had no intention of bowing to despair.

Read the rest of this entry

Life goes on for Chile miners

Matt Frei | 17:45 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010


After a brief absence, the story of the rescued Chilean miners has re-emerged. As promised, they are due to play their soccer match against government officials and rescuers today in the national stadium in Santiago, followed by a meal at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

The post-rescue party continues just as post-traumatic stress is beginning to affect some of the miners. Although they are not missing the physical conditions of their subterranean incarceration, they are apparently missing each other's company.

Why Karzai never ceases to amaze

Matt Frei | 14:47 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010


President Hamid Karzai displays the same kind of mercurial mood swings and loony logic you expect to encounter in Hollywood, but not in Kabul under siege. Whether he's on the verge of public tears, belittling fraud in an election or schmoozing with the least savoury parts of the Taliban, Mr Karzai never ceases to amaze and continuously works to his own idiosyncratic rationale.

The latest item on this list is his shoulder-shrugging admission that of course he received bundles of cash from Iran to help run the presidential office. About $1m once or twice a year. And, we are told, it is all very transparent. Does this mean it was handed over in a see-through bag? Of course the sum is a trifle compared to the hundreds of millions that have been ploughed into Afghanistan in the past nine years. Most of these were unseen wire transfers, not bundles of crisp cash. But as recent reports suggest, some of that money ended up in Dubai bank accounts. So what's worse? I hope that the Iranians at least demand some degree of accountability for their gifts.

The UK coalition's great gamble on austerity

Matt Frei | 14:30 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010


Teargas is new perfume wafting over from Paris. The British government is hoping that it won't catch on in London and that the new smells will be confined to the cabbage soup being prepared in austerity households around the country. The debate soldiers on; has the coalition government forced the caster oil of recovery down the engorged throats of a pampered British public, or are they strangling the weak pulse of a battered economy?

Paul Krugman, the man who once hailed the last British prime minister, Gordon Brown -remember him? - for showing the world how to stem the financial haemorrhage now believes that his successor David Cameron has repeated the mistakes that prolonged the Great Depression. As he puts it: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to down-size the welfare system. I think even the coalition would agree that what they have embarked on is a gamble - they would say an unavoidable one - that depends on the rest of the world economy growing. Once again, we head into the unknown.

Can America be fixed?

Matt Frei | 21:47 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010


The question to which we return like a sore tongue to an aching tooth is whether the current doom and gloom in America is cyclical or structural.

Will most of the jobs which have disappeared in the Great Recession ever return? Is America being eclipsed by India and China? Or can all the things that are wrong with America be fixed by all the things that are right with America, as Bill Clinton once said.

These questions of decline and fall underpin the desperate nostalgia of the Tea Party movement. They surely haunt the president as he tries to breath new life into his "Yes, we can" mantra of 2008.

Fareed Zakaria's column in Time Magazine is one of the best things I have read on this subject.

Would Tea Partiers be happier in Britain?

Matt Frei | 17:22 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010


When it comes to the economy, governments - like generals - seem to be fighting the last war. This explains the radically different approaches to dealing with the economic droop on both sides of the Atlantic.

John Maynard Keynes - arguably still the world's most famous economist - was buried in Britain, the country of his birth, yesterday in an undignified, unmarked grave. The coalition government thumbed its nose at deficit spending, deciding to tighten belts so much that some fear it might choke the life out of a questionable recovery.

The reason, apparently, is that the last economic trauma for Britain was the intervention of the IMF in the late seventies. That was when the UK ran up unsustainable debts, couldn't keep the lights on and gained the reputation for being the sick man of Europe.

The IMF rode again earlier this year, this time into Greece. But Britain wants to holiday in Greece. It doesn't want to become Greece.

The coalition's cost-cutting, belt-tightening measures are principally aimed at preventing history from repeating itself even while they raise the stakes in a completely new gamble.

This may account for the fact that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the more centre-left Liberal Democrats, sat next to his boss David Cameron looking as comfortable and rosy cheeked as Banco's ghost.

In the US it is of course the Great Depression and its traumas which inform today's battles. Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, is the preeminent scholar of the subject. It is commonly acknowledged that the Depression was prolonged when FDR introduced severe budget cuts, until America was saved by those massive public works projects otherwise known as the New Deal and World War II.

So, compared to Europe, the administration here has spent like a drunken sailor and is merely tinkering with the thought of cutting welfare programs and containing - at best - the increase in defence spending. Keynes has been naturalized with full honours.

I have an idea. We should organise a massive population exchange program: French demonstrators and British worry-warts in return for Tea Party supporters. Both would feel so much more comfortable in each other's homes right now.

Where the axe falls

Matt Frei | 15:29 UK time, Wednesday, 20 October 2010


grim_reaper.jpgToday is Axe Wednesday in the United Kingdom. The Chancellor's scythe has swept across dozens of government departments in a way that would make the Grim Reaper proud. Defence is being cut by 8%. Britain will have an aircraft carrier without fixed-wing aircraft. The Foreign Office will cut the number of diplomats dispatched from London by 25%. And on and on it goes.

Cool Britannia has been replaced by Cruel Britannia. The average cuts of 19% are draconian - the worst since World War II - but they were less severe than the 25% expected. This may have been good politics. We will see in the coming months whether the stiff upper lip of austerity will morph into the grimace of anger seen this week on the streets of France.

So what does America make of all this? On one hand, there is no shortage of mirth that the French - it would have to be the French - are mounting the barricades and hurling Molotov cocktails over an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62. But forget the French. Look at the rest of Europe.

The supine Superpower of Leisure and Welfare is slashing with the gusto of Freddy Krueger in yet another Friday the 13th remake: the UK, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Germany and even Italy are all raising taxes and cutting government programmes. We will see whether these measures produce so much cold turkey for once binge-spending Europeans that they lose their consumer pulse altogether. That would, of course, be disastrously counterproductive.

It all comes down to the tolerance for hardship and whether Europeans see the point of the exercise and a light at the end of the tunnel. The jury is out on that. But instead of smirking at Europe, as it usually does, the US may want to sit up and watch. This may be a movie coming to a theatre near you. The UK cuts are the equivalent of $350bn (£220bn) per annum in this country. And although tax increases are very unlikely here if the Democrats end up losing control of Capitol Hill, something will eventually have to give if America is to reduce its Everest of debt.

Blown away by campaign spending?

Matt Frei | 18:17 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010


There seems to be no sign of austerity when it comes to campaign spending in the US mid-term elections. The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty writes wonderfully that to spend any time at all in California these days is to feel the gale force of Meg Whitman's money. The former chief executive of eBay is hurling $139m of her own cash - a fraction of the total - at the governor's race.

The question is, does this amount of money convince voters in the era of popular anger and insurgency, when any sense of entitlement and high handedness sticks in people's throats like a hard pretzel? In the New York Times, David Brooks in a typically counterintuitive piece argues that so much campaign money is money wasted. In these times, cash is rarely the difference between victory and defeat, he writes. It's just the primitive mythology of the political class.

Family launches iPhone into space

Matt Frei | 14:57 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010


A family sparked a media frenzy a year ago last Saturday by claiming their son was aboard a helium balloon that had floated away in Fort Collins, Colorado. But it was soon discovered that the event that had kept the world on the edge of its seat was nothing more than an elaborate hoax.

This October, a father-son duo have reclaimed the balloon spotlight by launching an iPhone and HD camera into space in a homemade rig. The reason for the iPhone balloon launch? To explore what is beyond us.

Defence spending at home and abroad

Matt Frei | 14:08 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010


obama_daughters.jpgIt's not every day that you can say your car was sniffed by an Alsatian trained to detect explosives while dropping off the kids at school. But then the US president only comes to parent teacher meetings once in a while to the school at the top of our road. Security has been noticeably stepped up this year. There are not-so-secret Secret Service cars, with their department logo proudly displayed, hovering around the school for most of the day. They were absent a few weeks ago because the Obama girls were not at school.

"What's going on?" I asked one of the very secret agents with Secret Service embroidered on his white shirt. "We're here to make sure that everyone stops at the stop sign!" he said. Right.

Homeland Security and defence is clearly one area which has remained largely immune from the recession-era cutbacks. Okay, I know Robert Gates is planning to slash the number of US military bases at home and overseas. But these cuts are nothing - even in proportional terms - compared to the wholesale amputation being planned by the British government for its armed forces.

I am told that the Royal Navy - yes, the same one that once helped to establish the British Empire - will be back to what it was under Henry VIII, albeit with more sophisticated ships. But then European governments are passionately embracing the era of gruel and gloom.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has thrown opinion polls and caution to the wind by pressing ahead with plans to raise the retirement from 60 to an outrageous 62. France is giving the world a master-class in bringing a country to its knees.

Chile's 'band of brothers' faces public future

Matt Frei | 20:55 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


The miners are having the first day of the rest of their lives. They are in remarkably good shape considering their ordeal. They and their families have been offered psychological counselling and, judging from the newsprint and air time devoted to every minutia of their private lives, they will embark on a very public existence above ground.

Thrown together by fate, they clearly see themselves as a band of brothers. This camaraderie has been one of the poignant aspects of this remarkable story. But could it also be possible that the miners want to cling to this unique moment in their lives, albeit without the subterranean incarceration?

President Sebastian Pinera for one doesn't seem to want to let go of the moment. He was here this morning seeing his 33 new best friends again. This rescue has recharged his political batteries, just as it has inspired the world.

A media-savvy rescue

Matt Frei | 14:58 UK time, Tuesday, 12 October 2010


chile mine site

The day is full of promise. The customary cloud has lifted early over the Atacama Desert whose mountainous sands look pink. It reminds me of pictures of Mars.

The mood in the San Jose tent city is one of benign frenzy. Having completed its task, drilling equipment is being ferried out to the sound of applause from the onlookers and families. Every available space has been crowned with rickety wooden platforms for the TV cameras. The families of the miners are high on anticipation, tinged with worry about what happens next.

Although no one here is expecting things to go wrong, this is still a rescue operation fraught with risks. Imminent elation will no doubt yield at some stage to anxiety about how the freed miners will deal with the new burdens that have been thrust upon them.

But that is for another day. Here and now everything is focused on the moment of freedom.

On Monday, reports suggested that the miners might be released in the dead of night with the Chilean President in attendance. This always struck me as odd. The Chilean government has managed this story with meticulous attention both to the safety and well being of the miners but also to the public relations potential. After all Sebastian Pinera, who is Chile's first billionaire president, used to be the sole owner of a TV channel, which he has now sold to Time Warner.

drill at chile mine site

This is a man who knows about TV timing and what it takes to make an impact.

When I interviewed him from the UN General Assembly in New York recently, he pulled out an envelope containing the message scrawled by the miners informing the world that they were still alive after almost two weeks.

"Do you carry that with you where ever you?" I asked him. "Of course," he answered.

With such a flair for the cameras it may not surprise you that the rescue has now been moved forward - apparently - to late evening, prime time on Chilean TV. I am not suggesting for a minute that this is a cynical exercise in media management but I do believe that this president, like a few others I can think of, has not missed the opportunities created by this crisis.

The authorities have consistently and cleverly underestimated the speed of the rescue, creating one pleasant surprise after another. This has been shrewd from just about every angle.

Mr Pinera has already reaped the rewards of his engagement. The first right wing leader to be elected in Chile for over half a century - remember most of that time was spent under brutal military dictatorship - he won by a narrow margin on the second round. Since the crisis, his approval rating, even among Chile's sceptical working class has risen. The billionaire has become a champion of the miners, not just the mining companies.

What I'm reading

Matt Frei | 19:42 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


Andrew Sullivan, an America-based British journalist and friend of World News America, celebrates an important milestone today - the tenth year of his enormously successful blog, the Daily Dish. I've actually known Andrew for many years, since our days at Oxford in the 1980's when he had hair on his head and not on his chin.

Andrew was a true pioneer in the world of political blogging, paving the way for blogs like this one. His blog remains a dizzying and often enrapturing tribute to the diversity of the American political landscape. Although even he admits he hasn't gotten everything right over the years, Andrew's blog is an indispensible catalogue of the most important cultural and political debates of our time.

Andrew's blog birthday aside, there's lots of interesting news today. Like this nugget from the Associated Press about how one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics had been nominated by President Obama to the Federal Reserve Bank. But in the latest sign of congressional dysfunction, the Senate failed to confirm Peter Diamond before it went on break.

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick went to see Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in action at a tea party rally. She writes about the ethics of being a politically active Supreme Court spouse

And for those in need of a new fix of Bob Woodward-inspired Washington DC dinner party conversation starters, check out Susan Glasser's interview with the man himself. There's plenty to talk about, including whether he prompted Gen Jones' exit from the White House, whether Tom Donilon is a "disaster" waiting to happen, and who Barack Obama might need to get him over the line in 2012. (Hint: she's no stranger to the White House, or presidential campaigns.)

Crowds above, anxious wait for those below

Matt Frei | 15:33 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


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You know that a story is big when they have to bring in the diggers to carve out another parking lot from the rocky dunes that dwarf the San Jose mine where a group of miners has been trapped for weeks.

Before that day in August when the miners were discovered to be alive, this place was little more than a mine shaft, a few shacks and one rickety sign announcing a commitment to safety.

Now the marriage of fascination and communications technology has created a caravanserai, a media oasis nestling in the dusty dunes with an ever expanding cast list: the families, camped out since the beginning of August, the make shift school, the chapel, the shaft diggers who had been keeping pace with each other to reach the miners first. Around these parts, the three competing shafts are known affectionately as Plans A, B and C.

There was a clown, interviewed by Japanese and Russian TV. The veterans of this tale no longer bother to talk to him. Port-a-potties are dotted in the desert like alien capsules. There is a traffic jam of catering trucks and satellite dishes pointing skywards like giant woks.

Chile mine site

A flurry of excitement and a cloud of dust are whipped up by the arrival of another government official. This is a rescue operation that has turned into a political campaign and a festival of the national spirit. Chilean flags flutter in the dry desert and the faces of the 33 stare out from dozens of star shaped posters.

In the distance policemen on horseback patrol the dunes. And almost 2,000 feet below the stampede, 33 men are getting ready for the glare of sunlight, media scrutiny and the benign captivity of fleeting stardom.

(For more on how the rescue will unfold, check out this graphic explanation from the BBC News website.)

A stampede from the White House?

Matt Frei | 18:00 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010


The White House seems to be shedding staff like the poplars in my garden are shedding leaves. As many have pointed out, a two-year rotation in a job that takes the Protestant work ethic to cruel extremes is considered normal. But the sheer number of senior people heading to the exit is beginning to look like a stampede.

General Jim Jones, the Obama administration's national security adviser, has become the latest to leave. His departure isn't a complete surprise, just as his disdain for the "water bugs" and "mafia", to quote a recent book, running the administration wasn't a complete secret.

For such a tall man - 6ft 2in - this former Marine was surprisingly invisible. When she occupied the job under George W Bush, Condoleezza Rice was far more high-profile, in part because she provided a necessary if broken bridge between the White House and the Departments of State and Defence. And in part because America's wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and on "terror" were bigger news than the war against economic malaise.

Barack Obama also has a far more direct line to Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, and therefore Jim Jones could be excused for feeling less needed than many of his predecessors.

Nobel Peace Prize could mean trouble

Matt Frei | 22:45 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010


We are in Nobel Prize season. Literature today. Chemistry yesterday. Peace tomorrow.

Hot favourite is Liu Xiaobo, a mild-mannered Chinese academic dissident currently serving an 11-year jail sentence for publically calling for greater democracy and the end of one party rule. Liu_Xiaobo.jpg

In anticipation of the day, China has threatened Norway with consequences. If only they had appointed Mr Xiaobo last year, then one Barack Obama would not have faced the predicament of accepting a prize for something he had yet to achieve. Ever since Mr Obama accepted the award, the magic has begun to fizzle and the presidency has started to unravel.

Did the Nobel Peace prize turn out to be a poisoned chalice, an example of hubris or just plain old-fashioned witchcraft?

Death of the American Dream?

Matt Frei | 17:21 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010


I have been in Vermont for a few days. The leaves are turning late this year. Monsoonal rain has clouded the whole state in relentless moisture. We are here chasing the American Dream, or what's left of it.

One of the state's theatre companies is staging Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman. He wrote the play in 1948, when America was wondering whether a recession might turn into another Depression. His own family lost most of its money in the 1930s and Miller's uncle, who was locked in feverish competition with the playwright's father, failed to live up to the expectations that he and society had set him. He was a "loser" and inspired the tragic hero Willy Loman, who deludes himself about his role in the American Dream until reality makes him take his own life. Loman commits suicide the day before he is due to complete the mortgage payments on his house.

It is a brilliant play bleating with poignancy for an America that fears that the next generation will be worse off than the present one. At the time, one critic wrote that it was a time-bomb set to explode under the American capitalist system. That system has, of course, plenty of opportunities for self-destruction but it does raise some nagging questions about the cost-benefit ratio of the American work ethic and individual rewards. And yet, I am always surprised by the persistent embers of optimism in this country.

Will Red Sox owner score with football fans?

Matt Frei | 19:15 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Henry.jpgSoccer, I mean football, still doesn't rival baseball, American football or, let's face it, beach volleyball as one of America's favourite national pastimes.

But that has not stopped American billionaires from trying to own English football clubs.

The latest to join the list of benevolent corporate raiders is John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, who is seeking to acquire Liverpool FC - one of the best known and indeed best performing clubs in the world - from its current American owners.

Tens of thousands of die-hard Liverpool fans could be forgiven for feeling like step-children in an arranged second marriage. They are understandably weary and, I am told, very curious about their prospective new owner.

As soon as news of the deal was announced, Google was steaming with searches for Mr Henry and the Red Sox. The results apparently gave many fans reasons for encouragement.

Mr Henry did not waste money on building a new stadium at Fenway Park. Instead, he renovated the historic ballpark. Liverpool's stadium was built in Victorian times and also needs a lavish lick of fresh paint.

As for the concept of a rich foreigner owning a hallowed English club? Well, Russian oligarchs and Arabian princes broke that taboo a long time ago. Let's just hope that the Red Sox curse doesn't get resurrected on the other side of the Pond in a place called Liverpool.

When politicians play hardball

Matt Frei | 21:50 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


Football_Fight.jpgWe all know that football, or what Americans refer to as soccer, is a more serious matter than life and death for much of the planet and especially Latin America.

In Honduras, the recent political crisis was only resolved once a qualifying match helped to unite warring factions. When it goes wrong, football can cause conflict, like the famous Football War between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969.

And then there's the Bolivian President Evo Morales who did on the football field what others only dream of doing to their opponents.

Green Machine: US military's forward charge on renewable energy

Matt Frei | 17:13 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010


Energy reform seems to be off the US legislative agenda, perhaps until after the next presidential election.

But even if American politicians are reluctant to embrace renewable energy sources for fear of upsetting the gas-guzzling taxpayer, the US military has had no such qualms.

Necessity has become the father of innovation on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Dozens of Nato fuel tankers have been stalled near Islamabad because the Pakistani authorities have closed the Khyber pass in retaliation over US air strikes. These sitting tankers have, not surprisingly, become a perfect target of opportunity for the Taliban. For the second time in a week, they have been blown up.

Security for these convoys, which provide fuel for Nato helicopters, Humvees and air-conditioning units and other kit, has always been an expensive headache, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. The US Army buys its petrol for $1 (£0.63) per gallon but it costs on average $400 per gallon to ship it to its outlying destinations. So a number of Marine units have recently arrived in Helmand province armed with solar panels.

There is famously an abundance of sun in the places where America tends to wage war. And although I can't imagine a Bradley fighting vehicle or an Apache attack helicopter equipped with solar panels, one can envisage some of the fixed fuel requirements being met by solar and other energy. If the experiment works on a suitably big scale, it might even diminish the need to go to war over oil in the first place.

Firms hoarding cash while economy languishes

Matt Frei | 15:54 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010


There have been plenty of comparisons of late between the lacklustre state of the US economy and Japan's so-called lost decade.

Employment remains sluggish. The housing market still bleeds with foreclosures and now there is a worrying report that US companies are hoarding cash borrowed at historically low interest rates. The whole point of these low rates is to encourage firms to borrow for investment, not for the mattress. Sadly the latter seems to be happening according to the New York Times, trapping the economy in a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

The longer firms sit on a pile of cash waiting for the economy to pick up steam, the less likely it is this will happen.

Political fundraising is one area that seems to be experiencing boom times. The Washington Post reports that interest groups are spending five times as much backing various campaigns in the mid-term elections as they did in 2006, with Republican-leaning groups outspending Democratic ones seven to one.

Stuxnet leads us into a new era

Matt Frei | 15:18 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010


nuclear_plant.jpgIs it just my lurid imagination, or am I the only one getting worked up about the perfectly and creepily named Stuxnet computer worm, a virus that ticks so many fictional boxes you would have to assume it was imagined if it weren't real.

So, this is a computer "worm" especially designed to disable software for power companies made by the German electronics giant Siemens and used by Iran's nascent nuclear industry. It contains a veiled reference to the Book of Esther from the Old Testament in which the Israelites launch a pre-emptive strike against the Persians to avoid being wiped out.

The geekocracy thinks that the worm is so clever it can only have been designed with the kind of resources wielded by a nation state. I wonder who they have in mind. If this is all true -and I cannot completely banish the suspicion that this might be some elaborate hoax- then we have indeed entered an era of cyberwar.

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